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Lottery of returning to work post maternity leave

Notwithstanding seemingly robust HR policies, for too many returners the experience of combining work and family remains a lottery. There is work to be done to change the narrative and encourage employers to see support (e.g. coaching, mentoring, networks line manager training) as an investment in returning talent.

In the year which marks the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay act and the 10th anniversary of the Equality Act, new research out this week sheds a stark light on the continued challenges of returning to work and career after maternity and parental leave.

423 respondents (98% women) across 23 different industry sectors were involved in the research which examines what helps and hinders parents when they return to work after parental leave. Researchers Nicki Seignot and Jane Moffett found six main themes emerged in support of people’s experiences of returns; the essential need for a level of flexible working, keeping good lines of communication open, planned on-boarding and setting realistic expectations about getting back up to speed, the importance of line manager support, career plans in the context of parenting, and employer support for breastfeeding.

Jane Moffett notes ‘Whilst we read about and were heartened by some positive experiences, for the majority of our respondents things should have been a lot better.’

Returners told the team;

‘My career resembles the titanic’

‘I was treated as though I’d had a two-week holiday rather than a year’s maternity.’

‘My manager assumed my career was over as I was part time.  He told me I should be at home looking after the children.’

‘Three months back, I had a career conversation and was told I was just ‘achieving’ because I’d come back and was no longer high potential’

65 respondents didn’t return to their previous employer for reasons that were preventable, and 59 of those that did return were considering looking for employment elsewhere. According to figures calculated by ACAS about the cost of replacing staff, the financial implication to businesses of losing these employees is upwards of £3.72m from this survey alone. As Nicki Seignot says ‘Of course these employees were the future once.  They were (are) our graduates, our high potentials, yet the mix of parenthood and continuation of career becomes somehow incompatible for too many.  The losers are the individuals, and our organisations’

The report, endorsed by Jess Phillips MP and Gillian Keegan MP – co-chairs of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Women and Work – is not all bad news. There are examples of good practice

‘I have such good trust and flexibility, it would be mad to leave.’

‘I’ve been promoted since my return so have a clear career path’

‘My line manager was so supportive and understanding.  I was focused and determined to deliver’

‘Acceptance and trust that I was doing my best and was still capable was really important’

The authors also note that where employers offer support through coaching, mentoring or workshops for returners, this has a significant impact on their sense of feeling back up and running;

60% of returning parents felt ‘back’ in three months with support compared with just 39% without support.  Six months in and the figure rises to 90% of returners saying they felt up and running within six months compared with 68% who received no additional support.

Based on respondents’ insights and experiences, the report also includes practical recommendations and actions for employers, implementing a range of activities to support returning talent more effectively. They call on employers to recognise it’s so much more than simply having formal policies in place.  The impact of this transition is evident in the lack of gender diversity and gender pay gap data across many businesses and organisations

The ambition is to encourage employers to go beyond the policy, to take a different approach, recognising the need to create the conditions where their employees can flourish and thrive for the benefit of themselves, their families and ultimately the organisation itself.

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